Sutton & East Surrey Water has implemented a job allocation system built on top of Google Maps to manage its works maintenance crews.
The system is enabling the utility firm to deal with the red tape associated with local authority building planning requirement when water main repairs involve work on public roads and pavements. It replaces a paper-based process, where teams would collect a print out of jobs each day.
Jeremy Heath, network manager, Sutton & East Surrey Water, said: “Sutton district council was moving to a permit system which meant we would encounter loads of fixed penalties if we didn’t get updates on repairs from the previous day's work back to the council by 10am.”
Sutton & East Surrey Water is a relatively small water company that manages 3,500km of mains water pipes. Its main office and depot is located in Redhill, Surrey. It uses eight two-man crews on standby for water mains repairs.
Jeremy Heath says: “There is a race against time to get information back from the works maintenance crews. We could use mobile phones or email via a tablet but none of these make a very good solution, as the information is not considered a priority for the crew.”
Another aspect of the project was to improve customer service.
Heath adds “We were in a situation where a customer would phone up and ask why there was a crew outside their house and we didn’t know what was going on.”
He realised the company needed a mobile job management system, but the only products available were web-based systems, which would not be able to integrate easily with the company’s back-end Microsoft Navision enterprise software. Heath did not want a system where information would need to be entered more than once.
After Google demonstrated the job allocation functionality in its Google Maps Coordinate product, Heath began a trial.
He says: “Google provides a website which shows where the crews are using Google Maps and a job packet.”
He also selected a basic Android device.
“I started with a simple Android phone, but in the trial I found the phone screen was too small.”
With a larger screen it would be possible to display PDFs of plans. Such plans are normally printed out in colour and supplied to the crew before they leave the depot, to help them repair the broken water mains.
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While at home one weekend, Heath misplaced his tablet. He had put it in the pocket of his combat trousers.
“Most of our crews wear combat trousers . A 7-inch tablet can easily fit in the pocket.”
He selected the £120 ZTE Light Tab 2. Although it passed the pocket test, the tablet spends most of its time fitted in the crews’ lorries, using a hardwired charging point.
Heath says he did not spend any extra money on a ruggedised tablet as the device was so cheap. The only extra was spent on RamMount, a theft-proof dashboard mount made in the US.
He adds: “We have only had one broken screen in six months.”
“We had no extra money available to introduce a new system, but the money we saved on not having to print out work orders easily covered the cost of Google Maps Coordinate, which pleased the management board,” Heath explains.
“The product was simple to configure from a technical standpoint, and we were able to roll it out within weeks.”
The ZTE Light Tab 2 runs Android Gingerbread. According to Heath, since Gingerbread is more of a phone OS, it suited the crews better than a more modern OS like Jellybean. “Training only took an hour and a half.”
Plotting the job on a map
The tablet sends back GPS location and job details via a Vodafone 3G connection. This updates a website back at the Redhill head office.
The IT team at Sutton & East Surrey Water wrote an API to allow managers to pull out job data out of the Navision job control system and plot it straight onto a Google Map. They were also able to customise the fields the crews needed to capture and collect it directly in the app, with this data then being fed back automatically to HQ.
At the start of each day, the Google Map Coordinate is updated with information from the Navision job control system using Google API. This information is transferred to the crews’ tablets.
Heath says it has been relatively easy working with Google. The approach Google takes – where customers raise electronic support tickets – is easier than calling more traditional software firms.
“We were in constant contact with our Google rep, who kept us up to date," says Heath. "With Google you do everything online. When I came across an issue I raised it online and I got an answer back in 10 minutes. The response actually came from Australia, which shows support is 24/7 around the world.”
In terms of improving customer service, Google Maps Coordinate enables the customer service team to see where the crews are located.
“If someone phones in and asks what is going in around my house, we can now talk about what is happening," he says.
“Google Maps Coordinate has transformed the productivity and efficiency of our front line staff,” explains Heath. “We estimate we’ll save about £16,000 in operational costs in the first year alone. But it’s not just about costs; by giving our employees the tools they need to work, we’re making their jobs easier and more enjoyable.”